An excerpt from This Mournable Body by Tsitsi Dangarembga, published by Graywolf Press. Copyright © 2018 by Tsitsi Dangarembga. Use by permission of Graywolf Press.
The Market Square is the combi’s last stop. The ground between the stalls is covered in banana peels and oily potato-chip packets. Plastic sachets swell like drunkards’ bellies. Orange peels curl on broken paving.
An urchin sucks at a sachet as at a mother’s nipple. A second boy grabs the bag. The first sinks down and stays on the crumbling pavement. The sleeve of his jacket is a frayed rag. It flutters in the gutter. Beneath the cloth little dams of used condoms and cigarette butts build thick puddles of charcoal-coloured water.
There is a row of combis. Yours swerves to a triumphant stop. The windows disgorge sweet-potato peels and sweet wrappers. Men and women grumble angrily and scatter. As passengers scramble to get out, a woman remarks, “Couldn’t they see our vehicle coming? So why did they just stand there? Why didn’t they get out of the way?”
Those in line waiting to descend bend double. The people in the queue waiting to enter start bickering.
The conductor asks where you want to go. You shrug and he reminds you, “Helensville.”
You snigger silently. With your education, you know the suburb is called Helensvale. Helen’s Valley.
“Helensville,” the conductor says, without showing the impatience he must feel. “That’s where this one is going back to.”
He jumps out to bellow at the passengers, “Parents! Whoever’s going, all I can tell you is get in. It’s only who’s going who goes.”
You slide toward the vehicle’s open door. Changing your mind, you slide back up against the window. You change your mind again and end up in the middle of the seat; halfway here and halfway there, where there is no necessity, neither for decision nor for action.
A couple of passengers climb in.
“This one for the shops and the police station,” the conductor shouts.
A woman turns round and hisses at a man to stop pressing himself up against her. The man laughs.
Another combi arrives, spewing fumes. Everyone splutters and when the air clears again you all gape at a young woman who is threading her way through the stalls of fruit and vegetables toward the combis.
She is elegant on sky-high heels in spite of the rubble and the cracks in the paving. She pushes out every bit of her body that can protrude—lips, hips, breasts, and buttocks—to greatest effect. Her hands end in pointed black and gold nails. She holds several carrier bags that shout “NEON” and other boutique names in huge jagged letters. She sways the bags languidly, as she does her body.
You gape as much as anyone else, recognition stirring. The young woman sashays over to a combi. Fasha-fasha she goes, like that, all her parts moving with the assurance of a woman who knows she is beautiful. The crowd shifts and regroups. Men inside and outside the combis exhale sharply, misting windows. You stir too. Your breath stops in your throat as you finally identify the newcomer. It is your hostelmate Gertrude.
She grasps the iron seat frame inside a combi to pull herself into the vehicle. Practised, she swings her bags behind her buttocks to prevent unwanted sightings. When her grip slips, she clutches at the cheap material that covers the vehicle’s seat. The upholstery rips, disgorging fountains of foam rubber as she teeters backward.
“Knees! Knees!” a hoarse voice yells at your hostelmate. “Keep them closed.”
“There’s a little fish. It’s going to show its mouth hole, just like it does when it’s out of water,” a man shouts.
Gertrude pretends she isn’t tugging her dress down as she lands back on the ground. But beneath the carrier bags, she’s doing so for all she’s worth. In her other hand is clutched, as though for safety, a fistful of cushion stuffing.
The crowd ripples and fidgets, hums and buzzes with amusement. Energy swirls out from this mirth. It slides you from your seat to the ground and into the throng. The crowd guffaws. You do too. As you do, you grow and grow until you believe you are much bigger than yourself and this is wonderful.
The woman rubs her arms and slides her weight from one leg to the other in discomfort.
“Hey, you driver,” a man shouts. “Use your eyes to find out what she’s doing to your vehicle.”
The man raps the windscreen and claps his hands to the sides of his head in exaggerated indignation. You laugh with everyone else at this performance.
“Just move, mhani, move. These ones are a problem,” screams a young woman draped in red and green, the garb of the Passover Apostolic sect. “A problem,” the young woman repeats, pushing past everyone to a combi.
“A problem! A problem!”
The crowd takes up the idea and spits it out from deep in the gut.
It is like the relief of vomiting when what is pent up rushes out. The crowd pushes forward in its unexpected new freedom.
“Someone open those thighs for her,” a man says. “Do it for her if she won’t!”
The crowd picks up the new refrain. You fling it at Gertrude and out over the market: “Open! Open!”
An urchin grabs a mealie cob from the rubbish in the gutter. The cob curves through the air like a scythe. Satisfaction opens up in everyone’s stomachs as the missile hurtles past Gertrude’s head, taking strands of her 100 percent Brazilian hair weave with it.
Gertrude lunges forward and finds a foothold on the combi step. Now, without a thought for the length of her skirt, she scrambles forward.
Everyone laughs and the combi driver sneers, “What’s the matter with you? Since when are naked people allowed to come into vehicles?”
A gang of workmen nearby lounge against scaffolding and adjust the hard hats on their heads, observing. Their laughter is without menace and without joy, without hate, without desire. The chuckling says anything at all could spring from their depths.
The single voice made up of many lets out a howl of anticipation.
The noise whips up the driver’s desire to see something more happen.
“Move, move! My car wants to go,” he shouts at the woman from your hostel. “With self-respecting people! How can it now, if it’s packed with naked women?”
Tension spurts out of you and out of the crowd. Your laughter hangs above you. Up there where it is no one’s, it snaps and crackles like arcs of lightning.
“Ja!” the driver brags. He examines Gertrude. “Who told you my combi’s a bedroom?”
The people are hollering now about holes in her woman’s body. They compose a list of what objects have been or shall be inserted there, and the dimensions of such cavities belonging to their hostage’s female relatives. A shrill voice declares your hostelmate is squandering blood by bringing shame to the liberation struggle, in which people’s children fought and fell.
The urchin bends to the gutter again. Sunlight flares from the bottle he throws.
“Who does she think she is? Let her have it,” the malnourished boy bawls.
The bottle’s arc exerts a magnetic force. The power picks you up. You are triumphant. You reach the crest of the missile’s trajectory as you would the summit of a mountain. The crowd at the Market Square ascends, moaning, to that high place with you. It is a miracle that has brought everyone together.
Your hostelmate whips her head from side to side. She is frantic for escape.
The workmen stroll toward Gertrude. Those standing massage their flies surreptitiously, behind women’s backs, as the builders pass. Hunger moves, wafts like mist over everything. You clutch your handbag to be sure you hold on to your Lady Di’s.
You heave toward your hostelmate with the crowd. She jerks her beautiful legs and fights to enter the combi. The conductor splays his arms and legs to the four corners of the door to prevent her. The driver clenches and unclenches his jaw nervously. He wants any vandalizing done outside his vehicle.
“Help me!” Gertrude screams. “I beg, someone, please, please help!”
“Helping is what we are doing, ehe,” a woman jeers back.
A builder walks up to Gertrude. He stretches out an arm to rip her skirt from her hips. The desperate young woman reels, is suspended in the combi’s mouth for an eternal moment. Everyone sighs in irritation when she winds her arms around the conductor.
The young man writhes at the touch. He wants to dislodge her but dares not loosen his grasp on the door frame in case the crowd surges forward.
Hands lift Gertrude from the combi’s running board. They throw her onto the ground where she sags with shock. The crowd draws in a preparatory breath. The sight of your beautiful hostelmate fills you with an emptiness that hurts. You do not shrink back as one mind in your head wishes. Instead you obey the other, push forward. You want to see the shape of pain, to trace out its arteries and veins, to rip out the pattern of its capillaries from the body. The mass of people moves forward. You reach for a stone. It is in your hand. Your arm rises in slow motion.
The crowd groans again. Now it is a moan of disappointment. A man stands beside Gertrude and throws a frayed denim jacket over her buttocks. It is a driver from one of the other combis. The sun reflects from his teeth as well as from his sunglasses. He turns to the crowd with an air of understanding. Gertrude gazes up at him. Her eyes are wide and much too white. Appearing to feel this, she looks away.
“Tambu,” she whispers, singling you out.
Her mouth is a pit. She is pulling you in. You do not want her to entomb you. You drop your gaze but do not walk off because on the one hand you are hemmed in by the crowd. On the other, if you return to solitude, you will fall back inside yourself where there is no place to hide.
“Help me,” Gertrude pleads.
Still smiling gently, the young driver whispers to Gertrude. He removes his T-shirt to use it as a curtain. Gertrude pulls the pieces of her skirt from the mud and knots them about her body. She puts on the jacket and closes it to cover her breasts.
The crowd is enraged once more, this time at the gentleness of it. The urchin launches a Coke can. It catches the young man’s back and rolls away but the young man appears not to feel it. He stretches his hand out to Gertrude.
“Young man, can’t you find a decent one? Well turned out as you are, yes, you can find one,” a woman screeches like an ominous spirit.
“Or else keep your whores at home,” a builder says.
“And just make sure she doesn’t delay people who don’t want to see anything, who just want to go where they’re going,” a man grumbles.
“Yes, I’ll tell her. I’ll make sure she hears everything.” The young man smiles, keeping your hostelmate’s hand in his.
“Sisi, you have heard them, haven’t you?” he tells her.
When Gertrude stands shivering, head bowed, and does not answer, a builder calls in a voice loud with disgust, “Now that you’re decent, why don’t you go in?”
Grief mounts Gertrude’s face. Another urchin lobs a plastic bottle at the combi in a half-hearted gesture, as Gertrude clambers into it.
“Iwe! Do you know whose combi this is? What I’ll do if I catch you!” the driver hollers at the youngster.
The boy darts away, teeth shining, holding the loops that bob from his ragged shorts away from his knees. The stone rolls out of your hand.
Tsitsi Dangarembga is an author and filmmaker from Zimbabwe. Her debut nover, Nervous Conditions, was the first novel by a Black Zimbabwean woman to be published in English. Her new novel, This Mournable Body, came out this summer with Graywolf and returns to the protagonist of Nervous Conditions and The Book of Not.